One of 2001’s most enjoyable Action RPGs is back for a sequel. Once again you can fight your way through the Forgotten Realms or bring a friend along for twice the delightful carnage.
First off, before I dive too deeply into this review, I would like to offer a protest regarding the callous use of the trite evil vampire villain in this game. Perhaps one day the virtuous bloodsuckers of the universe will be used as plot devices. Yes, those brave adventurers from Dark Alliance are back to thwart evil – for about two minutes of a cut scene. Alas, none of them had prepped a spell of Sense Ambush or Detect Undead; for, before the intro is finished, our beloved one-dimensional heroes are hurled into imprisonment unknown.
Never fear, brave gamers, in true Forgotten Realms fashion, a fresh band of merry adventurers is dead set on vanquishing evil, righting wrongs, and gathering mountains of experience points. That is really the plot of the game. There isn’t anything more.
And that is precisely what makes this game such a wonderful action RPG – with an emphasis on the action part. Dark Alliance II follows its predecessor’s footsteps admirably saving the hour long cut scenes and dizzying metaphors for Japanese RPGs. This game is all about the good old hack and slash.
If you haven’t played the first one, then not only have you missed out on one of the action classics of 2001 but you also have spared yourself an intense feeling of familiarity. Dark Alliance II begins in the middle of action. After a quick conversation with a whiney caravan guard, you are off and running into a swarm of pesky goblins, carrion birds, and other nasty ilk. Combat flows smoothly in Dark Alliance II, as in its precursor, with a delightful mix of button mashing and quick menu swaps, although novice players may get tripped up initially since virtually every button on the controller is used.
Your basic game play consists of running up and whacking it or sitting back and hurling things at the enemy. Special abilities and weapons can be easily swapped with the D-pad, but I did find switching spells to be a bit cumbersome with their sheer variety. As long as the wizards stick to one or two favorites in combat there isn’t a problem though.
Occasionally a trap or secret door breaks up the action, but the developers have done a good job spacing out the frustrating item hunts and jumping puzzles to keep everything moving. Even the camera angle, a notorious frustration point in 3D action games, keeps up relatively well with the players reducing annoying blind side attacks.
All of the game mechanics feel much the same as the original Dark Alliance. In fact, Dark Alliance II uses the exact same engine as the first, so what makes the sequel different?
First, the five characters do have a different flavor and feel than their counterparts. While the original featured a human thug, an elfin spellslinger, and a dwarf that was supposed to be a cleric, Dark Alliance II offers up the sassy combination of a nipple-bearing nancy-boy necromancer, Helga the Swedish cleric, the dark elf monk of doom, and Dorn – the human barbarian who bears such a resemblance to a certain character in Braveheart that I found myself crying “For Freedom!” every time I rushed into a fight. Last but not least, the Dwarves seem to have complained about stereotyping in video games because the last character is that oh so common in Dungeons & Dragons? dwarven rogue. All kidding aside, the variety of character classes is a nice improvement to the game.
The second improvement to gameplay from the original is the ability to customize weapons and armor as well as your character. Inside the workshop you can affix various magic gems and rune stones to your items to exponentially increase their power. Be prepared to spend big though; only quality items can be modified, and if you make a mistake it will cost you even more to disassemble the weapon and refit a new one. Additionally, any rune stones you used in the process are destroyed, so my advice is to be very careful and save before you modify anything.
With all the new characters and customization features, I would have liked to see more variety in the enemies in the game, at least in the earlier levels. Of course, if I had my way, I would have the entire Monstrous Compendium running at me, fangs bared, but I am a glutton for punishment. Still, the enemies they do present in Dark Alliance II are nicely animated with decent models and some pretty effects.
This brings me to the subject of graphics. Dark Alliance II is a beautiful game, but it is a beautiful game for 2001. Very little has changed from the original. I really have no complaints about the textures, and the lighting effects are still top notch (particularly with spell effects), but it would have been nice to see something new. I also would have liked to see a little more realism in the design of the heroes. Try as I may to suspend disbelief, I simply cannot accept what passes for armor on the monk and necromancer. I mean, those two are really lucky that they didn’t get stuck in Icewind Dale.
The sound in Dark Alliance II is also well done if not exceptional. I have learned through this game that all dark elves are German and all other inhabitants of Baldur’s Gate spend way too much time at Renaissance Faires. The voice acting is all top notch and the music stays atmospheric and not distracting. Every once in a while in town, however, I noticed the music swelling for no reason. Perhaps there is hidden drama in the city streets.
All in all, I have to recommend Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II as unabashed fun. While it is a bit short and light on depth of plot, I feel that these actually enhance the mindless fun of the title. The two-player mode, as well, grants hours of replay value as you find yourself screaming insults at your partner while running around to grab all the kills and treasure you can. Indeed, I preferred the two player mode, especially for multiple times through the game. The challenge remained consistent, with a measured jump in difficulty towards the end just to let you know that you were getting close to the finish line.
So, in conclusion, if you don’t mind a slightly dated engine, and relatively mindless combat, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II is bound to provide hours of enjoyment. Time for me to get back to rampaging as Dorn…”For freedom!”